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British tabloids inspire Russia’s school for scandal

Moscow – As students scribble in notebooks, a lecturer draws on a flipchart in what might look like any regular night class — except these are budding reporters picking up tips from the editor of Russia’s most muck-raking tabloid.

The editor of the weekly Zhizn, Aram Gabrelyanov, has opened a tabloid journalism school at the newspaper’s Moscow office, offering classes taught by staff reporters and jobs for the best students.

The newspaper, whose name means “life,” is Russia’s only red-top — thanks to its slavish copying of the design of Britain’s famous daily The Sun.

Just nine years old, Zhizn has built up a formidable reputation for breaking real news, a rare commodity in Russia’s staid newspaper world.

When a policeman went on a shooting spree in a Moscow supermarket in May, killing seven people, Zhizn was first to post security camera footage on its website. The shocking footage only appeared on state news agencies’ websites hours later.

When a mafia kingpin was shot by a sniper outside a Moscow restaurant in July, Zhizn reporters reached the scene before police, the editor boasts.

A jovial but tough-looking man with a broken nose, Gabrelyanov exuded enthusiasm and confidence as he spoke without notes to the students during one of his recent classes.

"Unfortunately no one likes tabloid journalism in Russia. It’s customary to say it’s ugly and unethical," he said. "I completely disagree. There are two types of journalism: interesting and not interesting."

He said he needs a new type of journalist who understands tabloids. And traditional journalism courses aren’t good enough.

Gabrelyanov gave his personal tips to students. "If you’ve got a hot story, you need to publish it, don’t put it off," he says. "In Russia there’s bound to be someone who will tell you that you can’t publish it."

A journalist for a tabloid — in Russian, the "yellow press" — must tear at his readers’ heartstrings, he said.

"People who aren’t emotional can’t work in yellow journalism," he said. "Your energy, your attitude is conveyed through words to people. If you don’t care, you won’t engage people."

Gabrelyanov recruited students through ads in the newspaper and its website. The fee-paying students come for classes twice a week and the best will be recruited to work at the newspaper.

"I’d really love to work here," said one student, Maria Tokmakova, who studies advertising by day. "I think it’s yellow press, but it’s what people need."

Another student, Ali Shartuni, agreed: "It’s the most progressive (paper) here. It’s like a Western country’s way of working.”

Nevertheless, the criticism most frequently levelled at Zhizn is that it fawns to the Kremlin.

Gabrelyanov makes no secret of the fact that any negative coverage of the country’s rulers is banned.

"My direct order to my journalists, I don’t hide this, is that we don’t write anything about President (Dmitry) Medvedev and (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin," Gabrelyanov, referring to Russia’s ruling tandem. "We don’t write and we won’t dig. First because there’s no point and secondly because it’s not needed for the foundations of the state."

In a cautionary tale about the dangers of covering leaders’ personal lives, one newspaper suspended publication last year after reporting that Putin had divorced his wife and was to marry a 24-year-old former Olympic gymnast.

Putin angrily denied the rumour and the newspaper, Moskovsky Korrespondent, said its suspension was not linked to Kremlin pressure.

Born in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan, Gabrelyanov started out by editing a local newspaper in Ulyanovsk — a city in central Russia best known as the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s founder Vladimir Lenin.

In 2000, he launched Zhizn, which now lists its circulation as two million, and in 2006 the daily Tvoi Den. Last year he launched the affiliated website Life.ru.

Gabrelyanov’s office is piled with copies of The Sun — whose design he lifted wholesale for Zhizn, right down to its Page Three girls and Dear Deirde sex advice feature, renamed Dear Maria.

He compared his editorial position to that of The Sun. "This is my personal opinion: a tabloid can’t be against the state. The Sun always supports the state line, doesn’t it?" Gabrelyanov said. "The Sun will never say ‘Let’s take the (British) troops out of Iraq.’"

Zhizn‘s closeness to the Kremlin is much discussed, although its reporters have not been allowed into the presidential pool.

Gabrelyanov said he consults regularly with a man seen as the Kremlin’s grey cardinal, deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, whom he described as "the cleverest man I know," as well as Kremlin media advisor Alexei Gromov.

But he denied acting on Kremlin orders. "Of course (Surkov) doesn’t phone me. Why would he phone me to say publish this or that? That’s small stuff," Gabrelyanov said.

Alexei Simonov, the president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, a media freedom group, said Gabrelyanov’s school would teach journalists to impose limits on their reporting.

"I think that Zhizn is one of those newspapers that shouldn’t teach journalists," Simonov said. "There’s nothing good about this."

A reporter for the respected Kommersant daily, Oleg Kashin, who once wrote a column for Zhizn, contrasted the tabloid’s refusal to criticise the Kremlin with its "real journalistic investigations" on crime and show business.

"The editorial policy is to block any negative material about the president or the premier," Kashin said. "That’s a really serious defect for a newspaper. A real tabloid shouldn’t be afraid of the authorities."

Anna Malpas/AFP/Expatica